Takashi Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes is a parable about cellphones and video games as distractions that enable a voluntary, easily manipulated surveillance state. In the film, children are given silver rectangular gadgets that produce fully mobile, four-dimensional animated creatures, which they rely on as bodyguards, cage fighters, and, most poignantly, as sort of corporatized imaginary friends (the latter are even referred to by an acronym, F.R.I.E.N.D.). These devices are dispensed to the children by a shadowy company overseen by a quartet of people who dress in black, full-body armor that suggests Darth Vader without the famous mask, functioning as a combination of scientists, mystics, and mercenary CEOs.
This cult knows the world is coming to an end, for the same reasons that it’s actually endangered: Industrial pollution that’s unchallenged due to the mass population’s pervading indifference to taking uncomfortable action. The world of the film is governed by a singular energy source, and this company uses these elaborate avatars as a way of harnessing children’s angry energy, which can somehow either destroy the world or save it.
The important point is that these creatures represent a co-opting of children’s imagination, which can be bent to serve a larger capitalistic purpose—a remarkable thematic assertion for a film that’s more or less aimed at children itself. It’s hard to watch Jellyfish Eyes and not consider the endless menagerie of Disney and DreamWorks toys that children cart around, particularly in this age of Marvel and the Minions, which condition them to grow into adults who buy the right things, accruing miring debt along the way.
This resonance is all the more eerie for the confident manner in which Murakami, a globally recognized sculptor and painter (he did the cover art for Kanye West’s Graduation), seemingly tosses it off, accepting this state of exploitive affairs as a given. Coating this bitter candy center is an outer shell that follows a familiar E.T.-inspired story of a loner boy in the wake of losing his father who befriends an alien figure that provides him the support he craves from a fractured, reeling family.
Murakami has invested Jellyfish Eyes with the same sort of primal pop-art aesthetic that distinguishes much of his art. The cinematography is often a wonder of shiny fluorescent colors that ironically contrast with the characters’ melancholia, and the F.R.I.E.N.D.s are a triumph of tactile CGI because they’ve been designed to purposefully highlight the medium’s fakeness in a manner that suggests a fusion of conventional animation and stop-motion.
Kurage-bo, for instance, is a charming little floating blob that suggests a gene splice of Toad from Super Mario Bros., Kirby from Kirby’s Dream Land, and the jellyfish of the title. Its innocuous cuteness makes sense, considering that it’s guarding a boy who feels dwarfed and defeated by the world. Kurage-bo represents a scaling down of life to manageable size. Another creature is big and wooly, probably modeled after a shaggy dog that’s standing upright, which also scans as reflective of its charge’s desires: to instill the F.R.I.E.N.D.s with an aura of peacefulness that contradicts their corporate origins.
The film takes a while to get going, shuffling back and forth between a variety of subplots and conceits (Murakami also displays pointedly little love for organized religion), but the filmmaker’s distinct achievement resides in his blending of the cynical and wondrous. Jellyfish Eyes has an exhilaratingly naïve ending in which the playthings are cleansed of their impure origins and restored to the children as pure articles of the latter’s creative process. It’s an ending that smacks of protest via contrast, as Murakami is clearly asking: Why must we live in a world in which this idealism is naïve?